Over here at camp A+H, we love us some lists. Here are our picks for the best records of 2011. Enjoy.
1. Phoenecia – Demissions
In the realm of abstract electronic music, this record is a masterpiece. The duo of Josh Kay and Romulo Del Castillo have stayed relatively quiet after their much-praised 2001 release Brownout, busy presumably running their impeccably-curated label, Schematic, doing numerous art shows, producing film soundtracks, releasing solo records (Josh Kay as Jeswa and Romulo Del Castillo as Takeshi Muto), or a number of other creative activities. Whatever the case may be, their return as Phoenecia, (in 2010 with Echelon Mall, and 2011 with Demissions) has made many electronic music fanatics, and lets face it, a number of IDM-listers, excited to see the return of an act that has firmly established their place in the pantheon of Intelligent Dance Music. While there are many abstract electronic musicians attempting to create something that is equal parts complex and emotive, Phoenecia has firmly hit the target and in doing so has laid down the gauntlet for others looking for a baseline against which progress can be measured. Listening to Demissions feels like what it must have felt like listening to ground-breaking records in the past. You know this will be an album that is talked about in the future as a game-changer. Now, let’s hope that Phoenecia doesn’t make us wait too long before their next one.
2. Wilco – The Whole Love
As any reader of this blog can attest, in 2011 I was more than a little excited about this record. In fact, my exact words were “The Whole Love” is to Wilco what The Soft Bulletin is to The Flaming Lips. It is one of the most thoughtful, intricate and well produced records they have ever put out.” Now, if you know anything about the history of Wilco, then you know that’s a bold statement, but it is one I will stand by. One of the most amazing traits of the band is their ability to reinvent themselves, to try new things and to allow creative chaos to seep into their music-writing process. This has never been more the case than it is with “The Whole Love.” What the record does best is lure you in with a comfortable pop sensibility, then pull the rug out from under you by presenting some amazing twist that doesn’t so much shock you as it does present you with a new perspective on something you’re familiar with. For a band going into their 18th year of recording and performing, it’s refreshing to see that Wilco shows no sign of letting their sound sit still.
3. Africa Hitech – 93 Million Miles
Africa Hitech, aka Mark Pritchard (Global Communications, Harmonic 313) and Steve Spacek (Spacek, Black Pocket, Supadread) have crafted a record so pitch-perfect and so reflective to the specific time and place that they inhabit as producers, that it would be easy to describe this record as “genre-defining,” if there were already a name for what they’ve done! The Australia-based duo take stylistic cues from across the spectrum of electronic music. UK funky, grime, ambient, juke and jazz are put into a sonic blender, then mutated to form a signature sound that is unique to Africa Hitech. These two veteran producers have managed to redefine bass music multiples times and under a variety of monikers, so it’s no surprise that they have managed to change the game…again.
4. Thundercat – The Golden Age of Apocalypse
In his debut release, Thundercat (aka seasoned bass player Stephen Bruner who has played with Suicidal Tendencies, Erykah Badu, Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Flying Lotus) has created something so sonically dense, so complex and diverse, that it takes at least 2 or 3 listens to really understand how amazing it is. This heady mix of deep and funky soul, mixed with abstract electronics and his vocals, which sound like they could be lifted straight out of California soul music from the 1970s, create one of the most unique and incredible records of the year. With Flying Lotus at the helm as producer, the Brainfeeder camp has spawned yet another genius release. I’m really looking forward to what’s next for Thundercat.
5. Neotropic – Equestrienne Remixes
Since this is the second A+H release to make the top 10 cut (what can I say, I’m biased) I thought I would forgo a review, and re-post Igloo Magazine’s review:
“On this record, a companion to the earlier released Equestrienne (Council Folk, 2009), London-based Riz Maslen has invited a slew of producers and others to remodel some of the latest works of longtime project Neotropic. The results are so refined and complex as the opener “Celaphane Road (A Dancing Beggar Remix)” attests. A quiet, bass-fueled soundtrack, where Maslen’s whispery vocal meets a cavalcade of thick drone head-on. It’s a tiny mile long steam train in the vast scape, terminating at a distant point on the horizon.
“Sirens Sister (Rusty’s Housekeeping Mix)” rumbles and boils with rusty, percolating sound effects subsiding and rising like a cryptic stage act, a mesmerizing pastiche of clanging bells and murmur. As the record plays on the darkly tinged “Sometimes (Lady Husk Remix)” has more in common with early Goldfrapp (a certain influenced follower) draws clear lines in its range of moodiness and stance. For those looking for a lift there are no shortages of more upbeat tracks like “Tall Fences (The Electric Fence Mix)” and “Love & Hate (DJ Stephen R. Remix)” which treat the originals to a distortion between groove and storytelling. And worldly rhythms are explored on the thick-as-thieves “Party Fears & The Alcohol Loves You (Small Fish with Spine Remix)” and the raspy post-techno “Hezbollah Girl (10sui Remix).” Here we see a sophisticated take on club beats without the cloying need to coax via anything but sheer sweat. Elsewhere you see a shift in the energy when “Muddy Water (Howpee Remix)” starts off. Sounding as good as anything excerpted from the best of The Knife’s catalogue, its moody and a bit atonal with only hints of vocal and shallow strings. The static and sunny vibe of “In These Days (Deltason Remix)” draws from the shoegazers of yore without recycling more than giving back. Boasting a psychedelic rocketship ride on the bonus cut “Carpet” the scene here is set.”
Review by TJ Norris
6. Boom Bip – Zig Zaj
In 2011, we saw the release of Boom Bip’s (aka Bryan Hollon) Zig Zaj. As his 4th full-length album (7th if you count his Doo Doo series of breaks and tones), the artist has evolved his abstract hip-hop template into something that feels like a natural musical evolution for an artist who has never been content with the status quo. The album features Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, Money Mark, Bon Iver guitarist Mike Noyce, Cate Le Bon and a slew of other guests. The first thing that one notices about this release is its warmth and musicality. It traverses a landscape populated by sunny, Beach Boys inspired California sounds, synth-pop overtones, 4-to-the-floor darkwave stompers and even a hint of musique concrete. The concern with such diversity of styles would be that the consistency of the songs on a full-length record would get lost and the record would sound disjointed. That simply is not the case here. Hollon manages to seamlessly move from style-to-style without ever losing the consistency of the entire album experience. This record is yet another artifact from an artist who continues to push himself creatively, and who’s output continues evolve and become something more than his previous work.
7. Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
Tim Hecker is something of a “glitch music” pioneer. Since 2000 Hecker has been a staple of avant gard electronic music festivals such as Sónar and MUTEK, a recording artist with such left-of-center labels as Mille Plateaux, Kranky and Staalplaat and has collaborated and produced with Aidan Baker, Christopher Paul Richard (Q and Not U). Credentials notwithstanding, Hecker has produced what Pickfork calls “a dark and often claustrophobic record that is arguably Hecker’s finest work to date.” The record is very introspective and has a quality to it that transcends the trap that most “glitch music” artists fall into, which is to exalt process over musical content. It’s emotive and beautiful, and the most abstracted and generative elements serve as a conduit for well thought-out compositional ideas. There could be an entire article written about the conceptual ideas of this record, but for now just know that if you’re a fan of ambient/drone music in any form, this is a must-have record.
8. Mima – El Pozo
El Pozo is the second album from Mima, the Puerto Rican indie music staple, who along with producer/instrumentalist Mark Underwood (aka DJ Nature), has created a rich tapestry that transcends any easy categorization. This heady mixture of folk, indie rock, electronic, country and regional Latin American music styles blends together seamlessly to create something that is unique and can only be called Mima’s sonic fingerprint. This sophomore record from Mima, which was mixed by Stuart Sikes (Cat Power and The White Stripes), stands in very good company this year. There are big things on the horizon for Mima. Stay tuned.
9. Zomby – Dedication
Zomby has made a name for himself as a producer by mixing bass music and his re-interpretation of rave and hardcore dance music. With his 4AD release he continues to reconfigure this blueprint by evolving this sound into something that’s more grown-up and ultimately more sonically complex. Pared down are the over-the-top amen breaks with the stabby juno rave synths, and in its place are intricate melodies and compositions that could have been taken from the Richard D. James playbook. This is an amazing record, and in my opinion, will serve as a milestone for the artist.
10. The Summer of Flux – Radio Anthems for the Newly Disenfranchised
Call this an act of my grandiose self-actualization, self-congratulations or narcissism run rampant, but I feel that this record, which was co-written, produced and recorded by myself and Aaron Mobley is one of the most stand-out records of the year. I say this because it is not only the culmination of multiple years of collaboration, but it is also the manifestation of Architects & Heroes, the label I launched exactly one year ago this month.
On a personal note, the records represents the 2011 for me; the loss of my father in a car accident, meeting and getting engaged to the love of my life, the launching of my consulting business, starting the record label, the ending of friendships, the beginning of new ones and getting older. It’s an audio diary in a way, and I hope to share even more with you in the very near future.